Back into the Andean Foothills

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

FedEx eventually came through with the essential spare parts which Frank had despatched from Almonte, and Marcelo and his team at Taller Cuatrin designated DC3 a top priority. They dropped the transmission and replaced the oil seal with no problem, but were not totally satisfied until we had arranged for a complete engine wash followed by an extensive test drive.......yet another day's delay! Fortunately, DC3 received a clean bill of health, so after two and a half weeks of waiting in Paraná we were finally back on the road again.

Eager to make up some of the time we had lost, we headed north-west across the plains and covered 750 km in one day. Although expecting more of the brown, dry pampa dominating the southern landscape, we were pleasantly surprised to note extensive areas of very productive agriculture for the first few hours. Winter wheat, corn and soybeans at various stages of growth, were interspersed with large sugarcane estates. Gradually, we passed into a very hot and humid swampy region, opening eventually into a dry, dusty terrain that was sparsely populated. Housing shifted to poor, adobe construction, while inhabitants depended on horse and buggy for their transportation. It was difficult to perceive how anyone might eke out an existence here. Our question was answered in part by the smoke escaping from charcoal kilns, and the carved mortar and pestles lining the road for sale to passing traffic.

Bypassing Santiago del Estero, we continued on to Termas de Río Hondo for the night. Why anyone in their right mind would search out hot springs when the temperatures were soaring is anybody's guess. However, even the most basic accommodations in this small town that is located on fourteen thermal layers, offer hot mineral baths, so we enjoyed our evening happy hour relaxing in the lukewarm pool at our campsite. Still being out-of-season for Argentineans, we often find ourselves being the only visitors at the various campsites - well, on week nights that is!!

Next day brought even more contrasts - the hot, humid air gradually gave way to a drier, more comfortable climate, and the hazy outline of the Andean foothills in the distance brought smiles to our faces. The precipitous, winding climb through lush, subtropical forest to Tafí del Valle at over 6,500 ft was rather spectacular. The town itself, set on the bare hillsides of the puna above the treeline, has been equally influenced by the Inca culture and the Jesuit Missions, and is very picturesque. Climbing another 1,000 ft out of Tafí, we zigzagged over the Abra del Infiernillo (Little Hell Pass), and through a stunning area of cardónes candelabra cactus before descending to Cafayate - a small tourist town sitting at the foot of the Calchaquí Valley.

Having already visited numerous Argentinean wineries, we might have been excused from yet another tour. However, the Cafayate area with its hot, dry and sunny climate, is famous for its "Torrentes" white wine - something that we really looked forward to experiencing in the stifling heat of the day. While sampling a chilled local specialty at the Bodega La Banda, we met Jason and Claudia - a young couple from Sydney, Australia, travelling for a month or so in Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. Within minutes, we had established an easy rapport, and thus spent part of the next two days enjoying their company and swapping travel stories. A medical doctor, Claudia had recently been working in Guatemala and Panama before joining Jason, an engineer who flits around the world managing the installation of dairy processing equipment in many different countries.

Next day we invited Jason & Claudia to join us for an afternoon of exploring the Quebrada de Cafayate. Over the years, rivers descending from the Andes have carved deep canyons through the soft sedimentary red rock, thus creating extraordinary formations. We spent time climbing into the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) where we experienced dizzying sensations due to the illusions of perspective, checked out the nearby natural Amphitheatre, and of course stopped at every curve for another "photo op". We also enjoyed a chilled bottle of Torrentes while gazing out over the valley at some of the unearthly formations, before heading back towards Cafayate where we anticipated that the late afternoon light would give us the opportunity for some more stunning photos. Oh, oh - those clouds looming over the horizon were too quick for us, and within minutes the valley was covered in a dense shadow. Never mind, we deemed the outing a great success regardless, and turned our thoughts to an anticipated gourmet meal together, later that evening!

As for DC3 - well, she's running beautifully on the long runs, but has again started cutting out and idling erratically at low speed. Perhaps we'll have to replace the Idle Control Valve and/or Control Unit after all - but here's hoping the problem will correct itself in due course, as it has done several times before.
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